When I was a child, we had risotto every week, and it's still one of my favorite things to make for family meals. It's one of those dishes that can be either simple—made with only a few ingredients right out of the pantry—or a feast unto itself. Vegetables, mushrooms, seafood, meat...everything's good in risotto. You can create a dish with a new personality each time, all using the same basic technique.
The key to perfectly cooked risotto is in drawing out the starches stored in the rice kernels a bit at a time, while the kernels cook and slowly absorb liquid and flavor. A few simple steps during cooking will allow you to achieve the right balance of starch release and flavor absorption:
Use Italian short-grain rice varieties such as Arborio or Carnaroli. They're shorter and plumper than long-grain rice and have considerably more starch. The starch is released during cooking, creating the distinctively soft, creamy texture of great risotto, while the kernels remain firm to the bite.
Toast the rice by stirring it in with the sweated aromatics to coat it well with oil. This forms a capsule around the kernels that prevents too much liquid from being absorbed too fast.
Add hot liquid incrementally to slowly draw starch from the rice. As a general rule, you should prepare about three and a half times as much liquid as rice. You might not need all of it, depending on the pan and the intensity of the heat. Risotto can be tight and dense or soft and runny (all'onda, in Italian), depending on your personal taste. For a looser texture, just add more broth toward the end without letting it completely evaporate.
Stir frequently. Risotto needs to be stirred often to prevent the released starches from scorching and to blend these starches with the fat and the flavoring ingredients. You can, however, take a short break after each addition of the liquid.
Prep your meat and vegetable add-ins
The flavor highlights of your risotto are ingredients that are either pre-cooked, or that cook quickly in the last few minutes of cooking the rice. Risotto is a good destination for leftover roasted or slow-cooked meats. Just shred them and add to heat through and to allow the flavors to blend with the rice. That said, chunky add-ins are not a must.
Prepare your choice of meat and vegetable add-ins (see options below) as directed.
Choose 1 or 2 add-ins (optional)
Leeks, white part only, cut in thin slices: 2 cups, sautéed
Zucchini, cut into 2x1/8x1/8-inch strips: 2 cups, sautéed
Asparagus, cut in 1-inch pieces: 2 cups, sautéed
Butternut squash: 1 pound, peeled, seeded, roasted, and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
Shrimp: 1 lb. medium (51–60 count), peeled and deveined (no need to precook
Bay scallops: 1 lb. (no need to precook)
Sausage: 6 oz. (about 2 links), removed from casing, crumbled, and sautéed
Bacon or pancetta: 6 oz. (about 6 slices), cut in 1/4-inch dice, sautéed
Chicken, beef, or pork: braised or roasted, 1 cup, small diced
Start with hot broth
You can use plain water, but broth makes risotto more interesting. As a general rule, you should prepare about three and a half times as much liquid as rice. You might not need all of it, depending on the pan and the intensity of the heat.
Bring 7 cups of liquid (see options below) almost to a boil in a large pot. Reduce the heat to very low; the liquid should stay hot but not simmer.
Choose one liquid
Sweat the aromatics
Heat 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil over medium heat in a heavy-duty 3- to 4-quart straight-sided sauté pan at least 10 inches wide or in a similar-size Dutch oven. Add 2 cups of aromatics (see options below) and 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, and cook slowly, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon until softened, 8 to 10 minutes. Add 1/2 cup water, lower the heat to medium-low, and continue cooking until the water is completely gone and the aromatics are soft and glistening but not browned, 5 to 10 minutes more.
Choose 1 to 3 aromatics for a total of 2 cups
Onions, chopped medium-fine
Shallots, chopped medium-fine
Leeks, chopped medium-fine
Toast the rice and add the wine
Use Italian short-grain rice varieties such as Arborio or Carnaroli. They’re shorter and plumper than long-grain rice and have considerably more starch. The starch is released during cooking, creating the distinctively soft, creamy texture of great risotto. The rice is stirred in with the sweated aromatics and coated with oil or butter—a process called “toasting,” which forms a capsule around the kernels that prevents too much liquid from being absorbed too fast.
Add 2 cups risotto rice to the pan and raise the heat to medium. Cook, stirring constantly, to coat the rice with the oil, about 3 minutes. Toasted rice should still be white and glistening, but you should hear a clicking sound when you stir it.
Pour in 1 cup dry white wine and cook, stirring constantly, until it’s mostly absorbed, 2 to 3 minutes.
Create a foundation of flavor
If you want, choose one or two ingredients to be the main flavor backdrop for your risotto.
If using a flavor foundation (optional, see choices below), stir it into the rice now. For saffron and dried mushrooms, add the soaking liquid too (which means you may not need all of your broth).
Choose 1 or 2 flavor foundations (optional)
Saffron: 1/2 tsp. saffron threads, steeped in 1/2 cup hot water or broth for at least 5 minutes
Tomatoes: one 28-ounce can puréed tomatoes
Dried mushrooms: 1 to 1-1/2 cups dried mushrooms, soaked in 2 cups hot water for 30 minutes and cut in 1/4-inch slices (strain the soaking liquid)
Radicchio: 2 cups, finely sliced
Add liquid in increments, then add-ins
If the pot of hot broth (or water) isn’t already next to the risotto pan, move it to an adjacent burner now. Ladle 1-1/2 to 2 cups hot liquid to barely cover the rice and stir constantly. Add 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and keep stirring. When all the liquid has been absorbed—and the rice is dry enough that your stirring spoon leaves a trail showing the bottom of the pot—ladle in another cup of liquid, again stirring until it’s all absorbed. Continue adding liquid in 1 cup increments, always stirring, until the rice is nearly but not fully al dente; this is usually 12 to 16 minutes after the first addition of liquid.
When the risotto is a few minutes away from al dente, add your prepped meat or vegetable add-ins. Continue stirring and ladling liquid as the rice cooks.
Finish your risotto
Many people think that only butter can properly finish risotto. While it certainly makes risotto creamier and, well, buttery, I think olive oil gives a cleaner, more pristine finish, and I prefer it on seafood and vegetable risottos.
After the addition of at least 5 cups of liquid (16 to 20 minutes from the first liquid addition), taste the rice to determine whether it’s al dente and pleasantly creamy. If it is, remove it immediately from the heat. Otherwise, let it cook a little longer, incorporating more liquid (up to a total of 7 cups). Stir in 1/2 to 1-1/2 cups grated cheese (optional; see choices below), 2 to 3 Tbs. unsalted butter or extra-virgin olive oil, and any additional finishes of your choice (see options below), taste and adjust seasoning with salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve the risotto immediately.
Choose one grated cheese (optional)
Pecorino romano or toscano
Choose one or more finish (optional)
Chopped parsley: 2 to 3 Tbs.
Chopped basil: 2 to 3 Tbs.
Chopped mint: 2 to 3 Tbs.
Thinly sliced scallions (white and green parts): 3 to 4 Tbs.
Finely grated lemon zest: 1 tsp.
Finely grated orange zest: 1 tsp.
Balsamic vinegar: 1 to 2 tsp.
Photos: Scott Phillips